Austin’s Grupo Fantasma creates Movimiento Popular
By Sean Claes
By fusing Latin music principals with funk and jazz Grupo Fantasma has carved a niche for themselves in Austin’s music scene. Their amazingly high-energy live shows and danceable tunes make for a time that no person should deny themselves. Before playing selections from their self-titled debut and recent follow-up release Movimiento Popular (translated means “popular movement”) at the October 7, 2004 First Thursdaze at the Ruta Maya, a few of the members had a chance to sit down and chat.
Sean Claes: How did you guys get together?
Adrian Quesada: We were originally two bands, one called The Blimp and one called The Blue Noise Band. We were all friends and we used to play gigs together. We came out of the similar scene – the Manor Road Coffee House. Originally we were a funk band, and then we started incorporating cumbias into our set. At that point our name was The Young Silly Bitches. From then, we gave it a name and a content and we became Grupo Fantasma
Brian Ramos: Because “Young Silly Bitches” wasn’t a name…or a content.
Claes: How did you decide to play Spanish-sung Latin music?
Ramos: Originally The Blimp had started playing cumbias from a really famous collection of cumbias from the early 1960s. I guess the way we really got interested in it was by being in Nuevo Laredo, going to these seedy little neighborhood bars and seeing this stuff done by these trios and quintets that were really raw – really raunchy sounding. So, by way of getting hold of these older compilations that were a bigger, more orchestral version, we realized that we could pretty much do anything if we started with the guitar, bass, drums style renditions of the tunes. As far as material it’s easy to play, it grooves, it’s Latin, and people can dance to it without really knowing how to dance.
Claes: Grupo Fantasma is a twelve-member band. How do you keep that together?
Quesada: Zanax…. No…actually, the biggest different between this band and most big Latin bands is that most all of us were friends, and are really good friends. The people aren’t just here to play music; we like each other’s company and like to be here.
Claes: How do you think you’ve evolved as a band from the beginning to now?
Johnny Lopez III: I would say, as far as musicianship I’d say we’ve all matured, if I had to describe it in percentages, 80 percent. We’re still not at the mastery level we’d like to be. We started out with seven members and now we have twelve. The addition of José (Galeano), I think, was a pivotal point in the band. He has taught us a lot. If it wasn’t for him, we’d probably still sound like our first album, which wasn’t bad, but it sounded like it was a little premature and not fully developed.
Claes: One thing that is impressive about you is that you’ve done everything you’ve been able to accomplish as independent artists. How has that effected where you’ve gone?
Quesada: You get every part of being independent. On one hand it’s been great to have creative control, nobody breathing over our shoulders telling us what to do, nobody telling us how to sound and what we should wear. It seems like since day one we’ve done anything wrong as dictated by industry pop standards.
The independent thing didn’t come out of necessity.
It wasn’t like we were saying “Independent ’till we die” or anything it just kind of happened. Then it came to be what defined us and what made Grupo Fantasma what it was. It’s not like we don’t let anybody help us, but we are really cautious about what we do and our integrity. We’ve had everybody from Sony Latino to independent labels interested in us, but at the end of the day we decided to hold on to our album and our integrity. Everyday there’s an option we’re checking out and another road we’re looking at, but for now we’re independent.
Claes: Your first self-titled album is like a free-form jam album, Movimiento Popular album is more focused how do you feel about them?
Quesada: We originally started out as a party band, playing friends parties and such. We gave it a name and an idea and booked a gig. That first year was a bit of a haze for all of us – it was one big party. We had people telling us we should have an album, and we thought “you know… we should. So we went into the studio without being that focused and in a matter of days we knocked the whole thing out. It’s fine. It captures a moment in time. The second album was completely focused. The stakes were a lot higher for us and we were clinging on to the independent thing and wanted to do it ourselves. That first album we had the attention of 400 people in Austin, Texas. By Movimiento Popular, people around the world wanted to know what we wanted to bring and what we were going to come with. So we were really focused and took the time to map it out and really had an idea of what we were going to do.
Claes: How did you handpick sound engineer Stuart Sullivan and mixer Carl Thiel to work on Movimiento Popular?
Lopez III: Actually, Brian and Damon Lange, our sound engineer, brought up Stuart Sullivan and when his credits came up Butthole Surfers, Willie Nelson and Sublime, we were interested…obviously being that a few of the guys are big Butthole fans.
Quesada: Dude, you can’t say that in an interview
Lopez III: I knew that would look good in print. Anyway, Everything is such a family for us, so a few of us went and met him, and he drinks like four Red Bulls a day and is crazy so we just knew he was the guy. Plus he has an amazing ear. So we went in to record. It took a little longer than we expected. After that we decided to get fresh ears involved in the project. We decided to go with Carl Thiel, who is a top notch pro engineer as well and he definitely had the fresh ears and basically he knocked it out of the park if I may use a baseball reference.
Claes: Who writes most of the songs?
Ramos: José (Galeano) is hands down the most prolific writer in the group. Right now, what’s going on is more and more members of the band are writing. I think we’re about to reach a really new era in the content of the band. I’m really excited to see what’s going to happen. Everybody is getting more technologically adept – just better at their instruments, better at the whole perceiving what this group does. It’s become more of a voice. All of the members are encouraged to write. I should hope that is the environment we have.
Claes: Have you received any advice from other musicians?
Ramos: Flaco Jimenez gave me some really good advice inadvertently and that was ‘Respect the legacy that other musicians before you have left behind, treat that as sacred.’ Even in such a potentially fakey industry like music industry. He showed me that you really have to step lightly around what has been laid out before you and be graceful in order to reach the masses using the momentum your predecessors have laid out for you in this art. We’re not just artists, this is our craft also. That’s been one of the biggest deals for everybody in the band. We have people that are more crafts-people than artistic-people and some that are more artistic people and I think that is what gives us the fire.
Claes: Where would you like to see Grupo Fantasma in a few years?
Quesada: There’s a record label from New York in the 1970s called Fania. Basically, it was a whole movement. That’s kind of what I always dreamed Grupo Fantasma would sort-of be. The Fania All-Stars were basically fifteen members who played as a group and also all put out their own solo albums. The big difference was they were Puerto Rican and they were interpreting salsa with the kind of music the kids of the time listened to. The way we all grew up on metal and rock and hip-hop and punk rock, those guys grew up on funk and the music of the time. They were kids who tried to play salsa music like their Puerto Rican culture in New York played. They did it very youthful and honest and just the way they interpreted it. They grew up to be this powerhouse. Not only did they invent a style of music that was unique to them, but they also started a movement that was very unique to the area and honest to them. They went totally against the grain and did it all themselves. That’s something that Grupo Fantasma has looked up to.
Claes: There seems to be an emerging Latin music movement in Austin, and Grupo Fantasma has taken the “Best Latin Band” category at the Austin Music Awards for the last three years.
Ramos: What we have right here, with Grupo Fantasma and all these other groups – Maneja Beto, and Ghandaia, is a kind of pop culture that reaches everyone. It reaches the whole of society. It’s very hard to create a scene, it’s very hard to create a movement because people devour something and overdose on it, puke on it and move on. There was a period of great productivity several years back when bands in Los Angeles came out like Ozomatli, Quinto Sol, and Quetzal. There was this surge of really amazing music. Then it dipped and there’s not a lot of new talent. Maybe it’s a generational thing where they have a social group that keeps collaborating, but there’s a lot a band in our position can do to reach out and fertilize the ground that we’re standing on in a place like Austin. Some of us in Grupo Fantasma are active in education. A couple of the guys in the band teach, I teach in an after-school program at Johnson High School, I teach music production. It’s about not only reaching our peers but maybe even the next generation down, so in five or six years or so there are still new bands coming out, there’s still new blood coming out, there’s still innovation happening. I think it’s a thing with not being greedy with your craft, sharing your craft.
Claes: Grupo Fantasma played a sold out crowd in Washington DC at the Kennedy Center, in October of 2003 and April of this year, how did that happen?
Ramos: I believe that like most things, when you work really, really, really hard at something for several years… it still doesn’t mean a thing because we had connections. A good friend of a friend was booking that showcase – the Millennium Stage. They’ve done like 1,700 shows now. It took a while, it took a lot of nagging and pulling on their coats, but after the first time we did it and they really liked it.
Lopez III: Two years in a row Brian has sang a verse about George W. Bush on the Kennedy stage. This last year, Colin Powell and the First Lady were in the house, apparently, for another event in the Kennedy Center.
Claes: What was the verse?
Ramos: Translated it’s: A President was voted into inherited office. All the people keep smiling and they don’t know they are being taken for fools.
Claes: This seems like an appropriate time to ask a question that Russ (of Austin Daze) wanted me to ask you. Do you this John Kerry is the “White Knight?”
Ramos: No. I’m not even completely sure that he will be the lesser of two evils where a political climate where moves are made several years in advance with no regard to what happens after those moves are made or very little regard for future generations. It’s anybody’s ballgame… well, it’s the right’s ballgame. Yeah, he’s not the White Knight, he’s not going to come and save us. It’ll take 50 years to fix what’s been done, and that’s if we start today and we’re not about to, I don’t think.
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Claes: Grupo Fantasma started out about the same time Austin Daze started out how do you think the Daze is doing?
Ramos: It’s pretty evident that Austin Daze is doing very well. I’ve been a close friend with both Russ and Wendy for a really long time. It’s good to see how far they’ve come. The quality of the newspaper is just fabulous. It’s good to see a business such as theirs remain an independent enough to be a venue for advertisers. A lot of the advertisers are really great local businesses and the content of the paper itself is great. You’re seeing the staff change and people who have been on staff as far as writing pieces in there get better and better and more professional. What would be really nice to see with Austin Daze, just like any other small businesses, is real success. You can take on a staff; you can make it into a business enterprise that makes a profit…puts food on the table for people in the community. That’s what really, really gives back. Just like Grupo Fantasma… I see us on that path and I see Austin Daze headed there too, without a doubt.
Claes: When are you going to record the Live Album for DAZE Alive Records?
Ramos: I talked to Russ. And as soon as that two million-dollar check gets deposited into my Swiss Bank Account, then we’re there. No… I don’t know, I’ve never even heard of that…um… prank caller…prank caller.
Claes: Anything to add?
Ramos: If you ever get attacked by a really vicious dog all you have to do is put your finger in it’s asshole and it’ll stop biting you.
Ramos: Thank you.
Keep on a lookout for more Grupo Fantasma news by visiting their Web site http://www.grupofantasma.com. *